Election adverts published on the front pages of local newspapers last week have prompted a backlash from readers and the National Union of Journalists.
The union said it was concerned the adverts constituted a “blurring of lines between journalism and advertising”.
It said the adverts featured “mastheads in a manner which may suggest editorial endorsement for a political party or candidate”.
The adverts were published around Thursday, 4 May, as voters took to the polls to vote in local elections up and down the country. Some were published on polling day.
Séamus Dooley, acting NUJ general secretary, said: “Party political advertising is a legitimate feature of campaigning and there is no doubt that media organisations welcome the additional revenue.
“But, disguising advertising as news and effectively hijacking a newspaper masthead for any political party or candidate is an entirely different matter and is a cause of concern.”
He called on editors and publishers “to take steps to protect the editorial integrity of their titles” amid a “strong backlash from readers” over the adverts.
“Regular readers” of the Westmorland Gazette have filed a petition calling for the paper’s editor, Andrew Thomas, to publish a “full front page apology” for running the Tory general election campaign advert and called for a boycott of the paper until this happened.
The petition said: “As regular readers of the Westmorland Gazette we are dismayed to see our community paper being misused for party political purposes.
“Whilst we would welcome balanced representation of all local candidates within the paper, we feel strongly that a front page advert for a single national party is not acceptable (especially when published on a polling day).
“We request that you publish a full front page apology in your next issue. Please note that many of us will be boycotting the paper until this occurs.”
The petition has garnered more than 900 signatories since its launch on Thursday last week when the adverts ran in the papers.
In an editorial comment today, the Gazette acknowledged the adverts had “upset a number of our readers on the basis of that we have shown alleged political bias”.
But, it added: “The Gazette was no more endorsing the Conservative Party than any other brand or product that has paid to advertise in any of our news brands for the past 200 years.
“This was clearly labelled as an advertisement. The Westmorland Gazette supports no political party.
“There is, and always has been, a very clear distinction between editorial and advertising content.
Political editorial and election coverage will continue to be reported in a completely non-partisan way.”
Chris Morley, northern and midlands organiser for the NUJ, said newspaper companies were “clearly desperate to bring in much-needed print revenue”.
“The political parties know this and it would seem are driving a hard bargain on what these ads look like,” he said.
“The unspoken demand is that it should look as much like normal editorial as possible so that it can fool the casual reader that it is the work of journalists, not political spin doctors.
“From what I have seen, tags telling readers that these front page wraparounds are ads fail to be prominent enough – or in some cases are missing altogether – and the type and layout is too much like the original journalism inside the paper.
“This is dangerous territory for newspaper companies to concede and far more editorial judgment should be exercised in acceptance of these ads which are potentially toxic to affected titles in some communities.”
He added: “It is tragic that local newspapers have been reduced to selling front pages to politicians, but it’s a grim reflection of the murderous market conditions. This also underlines the risk posed to press freedom.
“Now and again, politicians pretend take a great interest in the standards of the press (Leveson, etc) and propose a system (like Max Mosley’s ‘Impress’) that creates a regulatory hierarchy, with politicians at the top. They sense, rightly, that the press has never been weaker
“Ministers also profess to be very worried about fake news. But this election shows how their main interest is, and always will be, the manipulation of the news to their own ends.”
The Labour Party has also published front page adverts in the run up to the general election.
In January it took out wraparound advertising in Th Whitehaven News which attacked Theresa May for “denying the women of West Cumbria a safe childbirth”.